The much-delayed Kentucky Derby has come and gone, but there's still a perfect spot where you can enjoy a classic mint julep alongside some highly refined Southern noshables, even if it's too late to put on your finest hat and cheer on the horses. Late is a frame of mind, though, and it’s never too late for a cocktail. Unless you’re trying to make Julep’s happy hour — and then you'd better get your butt in a seat by 5:59 p.m.
Julep has been serving Southern fare on the north end of well-trodden Larimer Street since early 2018, though perhaps a few steps past your ordinary wanderings. With a street-level patio protected by a low brick wall and another elevated above the sidewalk, the front of the restaurant offers ideal people-watching perspectives while you're eating and drinking outside. The interior, with its mishmash of country-living accents, industrial chic lighting and exposed ductwork, gets plenty of fresh air from roll-up garage windows opening onto the upper patio. My party happily secured the finest outdoor seating option, a large built-in banquette with ample umbrella coverage providing shade from the heat of the afternoon (or falling ash, or a snow flurry, depending on Mother Nature's mood).
Julep’s happy hour is special for several reasons. First and foremost, where else in central Denver can you find a beer and a shot for $5? I would argue this is a feat anywhere in the city, but at a classy joint in RiNo, the deal is a gem. In fact, every offering on the happy hour cocktail menu comes in at or under $6, including the restaurant's namesake drink. And unless you're ordering to go, you won't have to drink out of a plastic cup; for a mere five bucks, you can experience he cold sweat of a frosty metal highball and behold the carefully mounded dome of crushed ice drenched in good country bourbon and sprouting a finery of mint. It’s a beautiful thing.
In addition, Julep will serve you a Southern punch of the day ($5), a Patio Pounder ($6) or a bottle of wine for an easy $20. Kool-Aid or sweet tea are just $2, with the option to add a shot for $4. One PSA on the Patio Pounder: Ours relied heavily on grape soda — so if you have nostalgia for Dimetapp, go for it. My pregnant friend was met with the type of service confined to the most professional of bartenders when she asked for a virgin mixed drink, resulting in a delicious, balanced and complex (albeit pricey, at $1 more than the Porch Pounder) mocktail.
Julep’s other major asset: fine, inexpensive Southern bites. Food options are capped at $5 (except the boucherie board, which sits at a reasonable $12). Two fluffy, well-seasoned biscuits with butter, local honey and preserves put ud out a mere $3 and had my Kentucky-born roommate cooing, “Crisp on the outside and buttery on the inside; I don’t know any Southern mom who makes them this good, and at altitude!”
The “chicken bites” are under-advertised. For $2, these skewers offer far more than a bite of spice-crusted chicken, though they may be a bit much for those on the low end of the spice-tolerance spectrum. For a few in my crew, the piquance overpowered the chicken experience; I agreed to disagree.
I was also at odds with my companions when it came to a couple of divine meaty items on the boucherie board. Head cheese is not often found in Denver, but it's one of my favorite charcuterie board offerings, and Julep's medium-thick slice of compacted pig parts was delightfully rich, savory and melt-in-my-mouth. As the sun warmed the slice of terrine, it became ever more spreadable on the churchlike unleavened wafers (which I would have exchanged for a piece of crusty bread). The lightly briny pickled pig’s heart may not be many people’s cup of tea, but the thin slices weren't stringy or tough, as might be expected. The accompanying hushpuppies, though, hid a center of rice, which reminded me of my vendetta against dolmas. Could this be a regional style of hushpuppy (normally cornmeal all the way through) of which I’m unaware?
I polished off the head cheese while my friends fawned over Julep's pimento cheese beignets. Yes, pimento cheese is trendy these days, but who are we to knock a snack made with soft yellow cheese, spicy pepper and mayonnaise? These puffed nuggets had the ideal level of molten cheesy excellence; the powdered cheese topping could hardly be tasted.
Not only does Julep’s happy hour satisfy, it impresses. There’s a chef in there who cares about food (including nose-to-tail eating) and a bartender who cares about cocktails, and they’ve somehow managed to deliver on the cheap. Shamefully, we passed on the happy hour fried bologna buns, but we’ll get them next time. There will be a next time.
Julep is located at 3258 Larimer Street and serves happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 2:30 to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Call 303-295-8977 or visit the restaurant's website for details and reservations.
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